Carl Reiner double-talked his way into a writing career.
Hired as a “utility man” actor in 1949 on Admiral Broadway Revue, a precursor to the fabled Your Show of Shows, Reiner found himself at loose ends one day, waiting for writers to come up with a new sketch. Remembering that Admiral star Sid Caesar did great foreign jibberish, Reiner thought he might chip in a little.
What he didn't know was that no one else in the cast had ever been able to keep up with Caesar's double-talk shtick.
“He did the best double-talk in the world — all languages. I did Italian, German, and he did everything else,” Reiner said. “I thought I'd never be able to use mine on the show. Then I got the idea of doing a foreign film parody, and I threw it into the hopper. I remember [writer] Max Liebman saying, ‘How do you do that?’ So I got up and started ad-libbing with Sid.”
Another former Show of Shows writer by the name of Mel Brooks picks up the story:
“Sid Caesar made some strange hops,” Brooks said. “You had to be quite a shortstop. We really needed a second banana, somebody who could dive in and out of Sid and support him. Nobody could do foreign jibberish better than Sid Caesar, but this Reiner guy could keep up with him.”
This was the beginning of a lot of classic sketches with Caesar and Reiner, but it was also the beginning of Reiner's “other” career.
“From then on,” he said, “I was in the writers' room.”
It could be said that Carl Reiner had too many ideas for his own acting good. His mind would never have allowed him to restrict his focus to thespian pursuits. He is a creative force who, unlike most people in Hollywood, can easily — spectacularly — back up his credentials as an actor-writer-producer-director. He's written several novels (Enter Laughing, a roman a clef based on his early life, and Continue Laughing, based on later years) a collection of short stories, and movies including Bert Rigby, You're a Fool. He wrote most of what many consider the greatest of all situation comedies, The Dick Van Dyke Show. He has directed films including Oh, God!, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, The Comic, and Where's Poppa? He hasn't done much acting since playing megalomaniacal Alan Brady on Van Dyke, and the pacifist in The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming, but he recently revived Brady for an episode of Mad About You, and says “my acting pores are opened up again.”
Ask Reiner one of those fawning how-do-you-do-it questions, and he's casual. Here's how he once humbly explained his writing method: “I just write a first line, and ask myself questions about it.” He has a way, even when speaking at length about himself, of sounding like he's not speaking at length about himself. There's a kind of built-in modesty, or natural grace; interviewers trying to describe it have simply called it a niceness. Whatever it is, Reiner always seems to be smiling a little — even when he isn't — as if he suspects the ultimate joke is on humanity, and he can't help but be amused. Think about it: Have you ever seen a photo of Carl Reiner when he wasn't smiling?
For Carl Reiner, to paraphrase his first book's title, to have entered the world laughing was perhaps not the most likely circumstance, given that he shared a three-room apartment in the Bronx with his German immigrant parents and brother in the depths of the Depression.
“My earliest influence had to come from radio and movies,” he says. “Believe it or not, I never thought of this until this moment, but my earliest comedy influence was listening to Amos ‘n Andy, because my father adored it. He put it on every day after Lowell Thomas and the news. But my real memories are the radio comedians. I just would not miss Fred Allen and Jack Benny argue.”
Reiner's father, Irving, had become a master watchmaker at 14, learning to build timepieces by hand, and later invented a variety of items, including a patented battery-operated clock. He ran his watchmaking business from the apartment, using the living room/dining room as his workspace.
“He had a bench against the wall.” Reiner recalls. “We had a dining room table and a couch. The couch opened into a double bed where my mother and father slept. When my brother and I got big enough, they gave us the bedroom.”
Reiner's mother, Bessy, was a housewife who managed to raise her children despite never having learned to read.
“She was pretty smart,” remembered Reiner. “She knew numbers and was a very good shopper. She also had a photographic memory, especially of movies. I never knew she was illiterate because she could write her name very well, and had fairly nice handwriting. If there was anything that had to be read, she'd say, ‘read it to me.’”
When young Carl was 13, the family moved to a new apartment which actually boasted a window in his father's work space. But he remained preoccupied with other matters: chiefly waiting for the new Marx Brothers movie, and eluding the beatings and robberies risked daily while walking to high school through an Italian neighborhood. “They'd take half my lunch, and leave me a nickel to ride home with. Otherwise, I might have told my mother. They were a much better class of thieves than we have today,” Reiner recalled. Because he had skipped a year and a half in school, he was younger than his peers, and thus insecure: “I was very shy,” he said, “and ever since the Depression I didn't have nice clothes. I was too embarrassed to even tell people I was interested in acting.”
Carl's older brother, Charles — they were named after aunts Charlemaine and Caroline — noticed how the kid always made his friends laugh, so he encouraged Reiner to go to a free class at the Works Progress Administration dramatics school on Center Street in New York and see what happened. What happened was “a little old lady, Mrs. Whitmore,” taught him a few basics, and encouraged him to audition for one Paul Gilmore at the Daily Theater, on 63rd and Broadway. Soon Reiner was one of the Gilmore Players, working six nights a week for an honest-to-God audience, and all the applause he could eat.
“We were paid nothing, but it felt so wonderful,” he said. “I was about 17, and it was a real theater. After about six months, I couldn't afford to continue. I was working as a machinist's helper for eight bucks a week, and I didn't have enough left over for carfare to the theater. I was in a funk. So I went to Mr. Gilmore and asked if I could get paid. He called me into his office, locked the door, and said, ‘I'm going to give you a dollar a week, but you must not tell anyone.’ He gave it to me in an envelope every Friday. He just slipped it into my pocket. That's how I knew I was good.”
From this point on, the man was married to entertainment, and in a few years, married. He and wife Estelle began their 55-and-counting years together while both were involved in summer theater at Alaban Acres in New York; he as an actor, she as a technician.
World War II found Reiner a corporal T-5 in the Army, which, of all things improbable, saw fit to send him to Georgetown University for specialized training as a French interpreter. From there he was shipped off to Hawaii and the South Pacific, a tour of duty entertaining his fellow troops from the stage. His brother, he will proudly tell you, became a “bonafide war hero,” fighting in 11 major World War II battles including the Invasion of Normandy. Reiner eventually traded the military stage for the civilian one again, heading straight back to the theater — specifically, a mountain resort in New Hampshire where he did stand-up comedy and emceed variety shows. From there came the lead in the national company of the Broadway show Call Me Mister, which he did for a year, before graduating to Inside USA and Alive and Kicking.
Television entered in the form of the 54th Street Revue. Reiner says that writer Max Liebman discovered him there, and hired him away for the Admiral Broadway Revue. Mel Brooks claims he discovered Reiner, a “gangly, good-looking Julie Munchen (a popular comic of the time) who could do everything.”
Either way, Reiner was soon committed to the asylum of TV comedy writing and 10 years of Your Show of Shows, learning from such wits as Brooks, Mel Tolkin, Larry Gelbart, Neil Simon, Doc Simon, Joe Stein, Tony Webster, Selma Diamond and Lucille Kallen. Together, they produced original comedy week-in, week-out (some of the mayhem of the process is captured in the fictional film, My Favorite Year), year after year. How did they do it? “We didn't know it was hard,” Reiner laughed. “It's like a bird. If he knew what he was doing, he would fall.”
The Show of Shows experience was the proving ground from which Reiner's magnum opus would spring. In 1960, he starred in a pilot called Head of the Family, the story of a writer on a weekly comedy-variety hour. The show was rejected, and Reiner was left with 13 self-penned episodes and a fair amount of disappointment. A year later, producer Sheldon Leonard suggested that they retool the show, with a different star. Reiner had seen a relatively little-known guy called Van Dyke in Bye Bye Birdie, and …
“I breathe a sigh of relief every time I realize that if I had done the show, it would probably have failed,” he said. “First of all, I don't have the talent that Dick does. He's one of the most gifted, extraordinary actors who has ever worked in comedy — ever. I knew I couldn't write and star in the series. That's why I wrote 13 episodes in advance. I'm just so thankful. Sometimes you just luck out. My biggest disappointment, which was the show not being sold, became my biggest triumph.”
Ditto for Van Dyke, at least the triumph part: “The experience,” he said, “was the best thing that ever happened to me, too.”
Van Dyke was hardly a household name at the time, and there was pressure to go with a known quantity. Stand-up comic Johnny Carson was considered, but after Reiner saw Van Dyke, “I knew I'd found my Rob Petrie.” When they were hesitant to call the project The Dick Van Dyke Show, Reiner reassured Leonard and co-producer Danny Thomas that “after the first show, everyone will know him.” There was one more hurdle. Reiner had a wife and two young children. In a way, the audience has Estelle Reiner to thank for Van Dyke (their honeymoon, incidentally, is chronicled in a couple of episodes):
“I remember that I said, ‘give me two years, honey, and I'll have a hit.' I said, ‘give me Saturdays and Sundays for two years.' And she did.”
Reiner got out his yellow pad and pencils, and wrote all of the Van Dyke episodes for the first three seasons — at 32 per year, a Babe Ruth-like statistic — then rewrote all those done by other writers. He acted, too; his megalomaniacal Alan Brady remains one of the more memorable characters in sitcom history. Contrary to long-held beliefs, baldness-obsessed Brady was not based on Caesar, but rather a combination of every major star who had a variety show: Jackie Gleason, Phil Silvers, Milton Berle. Explained Reiner: “I had lunch and dinner with Sid every day for nine years. Alan Brady, you wouldn't want to have lunch with.”
It was Reiner's feel for the writing to the strengths of Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore, Morey Amsterdam, Rose Marie, and the rest that made the show work so well, says Van Dyke:
“He tailored the show for everybody! He picked up our speech patterns. We didn't even have to act. It was just phenomenal. You know, someone once said that the show was actually a Jewish show with a gentile star. I think there is a great deal of that kind of wonderful perception about life that, to me, only wise Jews have. And I think that was part of it. Carl certainly saw human nature, the foibles that we all have. What I brought to it was the physicality, the visual part of it. The show wasn't written for that, but, my God, the way he incorporated it!
“And he'd listen to any idea, no matter how far-fetched it was. His selectivity was perfect. He threw out the bad stuff and kept the good stuff. He just knew. I was just astounded. I originally had a couple of scripts of my own, and the minute he sent me about eight scripts that he'd written, I just threw mine out. He was so brilliant.”
The Emmys piled up, year after year, and by the fifth season, Reiner and cast decided to go out on top. “We knew we had something honest and good,” he said. “We went out in a blaze of glory.” For many, The Dick Van Dyke Show would have provided sufficient laurels on which to rest. Reiner moved on to a career as a novelist, playwright (his book, Enter Laughing, became a Broadway hit with Alan Arkin, and later a movie), director, producer and actor. In 1973, he and Van Dyke teamed again and put The New Dick Van Dyke Show in the top 15 in the ratings.
Reiner's creative muse led him to a film career that rivals anything he has ever done for sheer cleverness. Witness The Man With Two Brains and Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, both co-written with Steve Martin, and both weird enough to be regarded as minor comedy classics. (Plaid was the first film to computer-integrate actors from the past.) There was All of Me with Lily Tomlin and Summer Rental with the late John Candy. The Reiner-directed Where's Poppa?, says Brooks, is a full-blown classic.
And only Brooks and Reiner, probably, could have come up with one of Reiner's lesser, if best-loved, comic credits: The 2,000-Year-Old Man (which they revived last year on The Tonight Show.) It started the way it ended up: as a joke. “One day a long time ago,” Brooks recalled, “We were in the writing room [at Show of Shows], and he brought in a tape recorder — actually, I think it was a wire recorder, one of the first. Just to try it out, he made up this thing. He said ‘Ladies and gentlemen, there's a man here who claims to be 2,000 years old. He says he was actually at the site of the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Sir?’ And he turns to me, knowing that I would give him something, you know, and I said ‘Oh! It was a terrible thing,’ and he said, ‘Did you know any of his followers?’ I said, ‘Sure, they all came in the store, and they never bought anything! You can't make a living from these apostles.’ And from there on in, he never let me go — he kept annoying me with this 2,000-Year-Old Man.”
Today, at 1,925 years short of that, the vigorous Reiner is dabbling in a return to TV writing with a new sitcom for Castle Rock, and continues decades worth of charitable work for Big Brothers of America, and the Educational Resource And Services (ERAS), for learning-disabled students. He is massively proud of his children, pronouncing son Rob (who recently sponsored the cigarette-tax Proposition 10 in California, to raise money for child development) “a great human being.” Daughter Annie is a psychoanalyst, poet, playwright, and actor; son Lucas is a director and painter.
He acts as his jazz-singer wife's roadie during her weekly gigs at the Luna Park jazz/supper club in Los Angeles (Reiner tears tickets, fetches her water, carries her ukelele), In his free time, he could polish his dozen Emmys. “When I visit,” said Brooks, “I have to sit in a place where the sun doesn't strike them. Or else I can go blind.” And now he's adding another trophy.
“Being in the Hall of Fame? Like I said the first time I won a writing award, there must be some mistake,” said Reiner. “I don't know if they're going to make a bust of me, but I know in that [Academy] courtyard, there are a lot of busts. That's pretty good, to have a bust made of yourself. Used to be only generals on horses with pigeons perched on their heads. But now we can have pigeons — on actors and anchormen! So I'm thrilled, I really am. It's a small thing in the scheme of the world, for something you've done on television, but I like the people I'm being honored with. You're known by the people you associate with, and I'm associated with a lot of nice people.”
Which is exactly the way a lot of very nice people feel about Carl Reiner. Ask Mel Brooks:
“I can't tell you enough about Carl,” he said. “He's a loving, giving guy, to the point of insanity. If he had hair, I'd marry him.”
This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Carl Reiner's induction in 1999.